Known for its sweeping sand dunes and charming cottages, Cape Cod is a vacationer’s dream. Despite its reputation as a retreat for East Coast elite, the Cape is more than just yacht clubs and the Kennedys. Stray a little from the tourist traps to find that Cape Cod’s natural beauty and cultural richness will leave you coming back for more.

The National Seashore at sunset
Photo by Hope Allison

Getting around

Depending on where you’re staying, you’ll either be on the Upper Cape or the Lower Cape (sometimes also called the Outer Cape). As counterintuitive as it may seem, the Lower Cape refers to the stretch of land that is farther north with the Upper Cape being the main, southern portion of the Cape. If you ask anyone for clarification, don’t be surprised if they use their flexed arm as a map. As far as transportation, there are a few bus services that run daily, but for the most part people drive or bike locally.

Best time to visit

To get the most out of your trip, it’s best to visit between May and September. Summer temperatures typically hover in the 70s and 80s°F (21 to 30°C) during the day, and usually drop to a refreshingly cool 65 to 70°F (18 to 21°C) at night, making it ideal for those looking for a beach holiday. During peak season, however, crowds can be overwhelming and traffic can be a nightmare (there are only two bridges to get onto the Cape, so the bottleneck effect is intense). If you’re willing to forgo a sunny jaunt in July, though, it’s worth it to visit in the shoulder season instead. After the summer crowds disappear, September is a dream: picture the breezy warmth and sun of August, but without the overcrowded beaches and packed bike trails.

Lobset tortellini
Photo by Water Street Kitchen

Where to eat

Although it’s best known for lobster rolls and fried clams, the Cape is also home to a cutting-edge food scene that champions local produce and fresh seafood. On the Upper Cape, try Fishermen’s View in Sandwich, or Water Street Kitchen in Woods Hole. With dining rooms right on the water, both restaurants pair their ocean views with great cocktails, fine wines, and modern twists on seasonal fare. Further along the Cape, you can taste incredibly fresh local seafood at the Pheasant in Dennis and Mac’s Seafood. The latter has three restaurants on the Outer Cape and its own fish market. If you’re on a budget or just want something more classic and coastal, visit Mac’s On The Pier or Seafood Sams for the best lobster rolls and fried clams.

Speaking of food, some of the best activities for visitors also revolve around the local cuisine. If you love farmers’ markets, you’ll find no shortage of them in the high season: with one or more happening each day of the week, it can be a great way to get to know each individual town and eat your way across the Cape. For those looking for a more hands-on experience, for $20 USD you can get a one week shellfishing permit, which allows you to dig your own clams in the coastal mudflats. Be prepared to get dirty, but eat hearty!

A brightly-colored umbrella on the Cape Cod National Seashore
Photo by Hope Allison

What to do

A kettle hole pond on Cape Cod
Photo by Hope Allison

After you’ve delved into its many-faceted food scene, there’s still plenty to do — especially in the summer. Spend a day along the National Seashore, a 40-mile stretch of pristine, protected coastline. Pack a picnic and a beach umbrella or simply walk for a few miles with high dunes on one side and the Atlantic on the other.

If beaches aren’t really your thing, there’s no need to worry. The Cape itself was formed millions of years ago by glaciers during the Ice Age, meaning that the land is sandy, hilly, and freckled with crater-like kettle hole ponds. Created by leftover blocks of ice, today these ponds make for great freshwater swimming — complete with rope swings tied to the upper branches of Cape Cod’s native pitch pines. If you’re looking for an off-the-beaten path adventure, this is it.

A beach covered in snow on Cape Cod
Photo by Hope Allison

Lastly, make sure to visit in the off-season, too! With a place like Cape Cod, the summers can be too crowded — particularly if you’re hoping to experience the “real” Cape. Check out fall foliage and eat fresh cranberries (picked straight from the bog!) in autumn, or skate with the locals on frozen ponds in February. Cape Cod is magical in the summer, but there’s so much more to explore when the summer crowds have left. As an added bonus, accommodations are a fraction of the summer price in the off-season, so you can afford to stay longer and dive deeper.

Header image by Hope Allison

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